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Aid worker diary: Japan’s tsunami

08 Mar 2013


Ground Zero of the Onagawa port (next to Ishinomaki) - the green part of the lying building structure is its rooftop. Credit OCHA/Masaki Watabe
People are starting to rebuild their lives two years after the tsunami.

On 11 March 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake followed by a series of massive tsunamis killed more than 15,000 people in Japan’s Tohoku region, and left some 2,600 people missing. Two years later, approximately 315,000 people remain displaced across the country. As the country commemorates the second anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, OCHA’s Masaki Watabe returned to the coastal town of Ishinomaki to see how the recovery process is going. 

Ishinomaki was among the towns hardest hit by the tsunami. Since the disaster, the town has lost 7 per cent of its original population of more than 160,000. Some 3,500 people died and 451 people are still missing. Today, nearly 30,000 people live in pre-fabricated houses and private apartments rented by the Government, while they wait for permanent housing.

Ishinomaki is a fishing town well known for its oysters, scallops and seaweed. At Fukiura beach, an hour’s drive from the town centre, I met Michio Takahashi, an oyster farmer, who felt the jolt of the earthquake and knew the tsunami would follow.

Mr. Takahashi survived the deadly waves by quickly sailing his boat out of the port and remaining at sea for one freezing night. It took 10 days to find all his family members, including his grandchildren. They were all safe. He told me he was extremely grateful to the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, who provided help in the early weeks and cleared the mountains of debris.

But Mr. Takahashi lost everything he needs for oyster farming. As oysters take two years to grow, he diversified into wakame seaweed—an essential item for miso soup—to secure an immediate income.

“I feel uneasy about my future. With loans I bought new equipment, but I had to begin with something,” says Mr. Takahashi.

Agriculture was devastated by the tsunami. Satoshi Abe, a 34-year-old farmer who grows cucumbers and tomatoes in Higashi Matsushima, told me he lost five out of seven members of his family, including his wife, his mother and three children.

“My heart was completely empty. Every day, I asked myself what I was going to do. I needed to set an objective in my life,” said Mr. Abe.  

He created an agriculture company to restart growing vegetables with three other young farmers. With the support of a local cooperative, Mr. Abe and his colleagues worked around the clock rebuilding a couple of greenhouses on one-hectare plots of land. With the help of 15 part-time workers, his farm has grown its first season of tomatoes.

“Sharing managerial burdens with my colleagues and working in a family-like atmosphere, I feel much better now,” he says, smiling. “In fact, I now have a dream to expand this farm.”

At the end of my visit, I went up to the hill top of Hiyoriyama and looked down over the “ground zero” of Ishinomaki again. I was amazed to see how the piles of debris have been reduced or removed. A famous sign saying “Ganbarou Ishinomaki!” stands in the middle of the flattened, empty landscape. “Ganbarou” is a common Japanese word meaning “Let’s get through this.” 

For many of the people in Ishinomaki, the crisis is far from over, and their day-to-day struggles continue. The situation cannot be portrayed as a simple, linear recovery path following the relief phase. The disaster exposed some pre-existing structural problems in this region: rapidly ageing communities; the migration of young people to cities; a shortage of skilled workers and people to work in agriculture and fisheries; and economic stagnation. There are plans to build 4,000 public houses within five years in Ishinomaki, as many families have to be resettled from temporary housing or from their current homes in low-lying areas at risk of another tsunami. People will have to make difficult choices.

The disaster opened up a space for people to discuss the town’s future and how it should connect with the outside world. In particular, people have come to appreciate the importance of “kizuna”, or human bonds, to the recovery effort.

During the disaster, OCHA dispatched an expert team to Japan to help the Government to report on humanitarian needs and receive international assistance. OCHA’s Japan office works closely with Japanese partners to share lessons learned of the tsunami and to jointly help other nations better respond to humanitarian crises.

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